15 November 1967

Major Michael J. Adams, United States Air Force, with an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
Major Michael J. Adams, United States Air Force, with an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane on Rogers Dry Lake, 22 March 1967. (NASA)

15 November 1967: Major Michael J. Adams, U.S. Air Force, was killed in the crash of the number three North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 56-6672.

Flight 191 of the X-15 program was Mike Adams’ seventh flight in the rocketplane. It was the 56-6672’s 65th flight. The flight plan called for 79 seconds of engine burn, accelerating the X-15 to Mach 5.10 while climbing to 250,000 feet (76,200 meters). Adams’ wife and mother were visiting in the NASA control room at Edwards Air Force Base.

Balls 8, the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008, flown by Colonel Joe Cotton, took off from Edwards at 9:12 a.m., carrying -672 on a pylon under its right wing, and headed north toward the drop point over Delamar Dry Lake in Nevada. The drop ship climbed to the launch altitude of 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).

The X-15 launch was delayed while waiting for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules rescue aircraft to arrive on station. This required Adams to reset the Honeywell MH-96 Automatic Flight Control System to compensate for the changing position of the sun in the sky.

X-15A-3
North American Aviation X-15A-3 56-6672 immediately after launch over Delamar Lake, Nevada. Date unknown. (U.S. Air Force)

56-6672 was launched by Balls 8 at 10:30:07.4 a.m., Pacific Standard Time. As it dropped clear of the bomber, the rocketplane rolled 20° to the right, a normal reaction. Within one second, Mike Adams had started the XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine while bringing the wings level. The engine ignited within one-half second and was up to its full 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons) one second later. The engine ran for 82.3 seconds, 3.3 seconds longer than planned, causing the X-15 to reach Mach 5.20 (3,617 miles per hour/5,821 kilometers per hour) and to overshoot the planned altitude to peak at 266,000 feet (81,077 meters).

A North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane leaves a contrail as it climbs toward the edge of space. (NASA)
A North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane leaves a contrail as it climbs toward the edge of space. (NASA)

With the X-15 climbing through 140,000 feet (42,672 meters), the Inertial Flight Data System computer malfunctioned. Adams radioed ground controllers that the system’s malfunction lights had come on.

The flight plan called for a wing-rocking maneuver at peak altitude so that a camera on board could scan from horizon to horizon. During this maneuver, the Reaction Control System thrusters did not respond properly to Adams’ control inputs. The X-15 began to yaw to the right.

As it reached its peak altitude, 56-6672 yawed 15° to the left. Going over the top, the nose yawed back, then went to the left again. By the time the aircraft has descended to 230,000 feet (70,104 meters), it had pitched 40° nose up and yawed 90° to the right its flight path. The X-15 was also rolling at 20° per second. The rocketplane went into a spin at Mach 5.

10:33:37 Chase 1: “Dampers still on, Mike?”

10:33:39 Adams: “Yeah, and it seems squirrelly.”

10:34:02 Adams: “I’m in a spin, Pete.” [Major William J. “Pete” Knight, another X-15 pilot, was the flight controller, NASA 1]

10:34:05 NASA 1: “Let’s get your experiment in and the cameras on.”

10:34:13 NASA 1: “Let’s watch your theta, Mike.”

10:34:16 Adams: “I’m in a spin.”

10:34:18 NASA 1: “Say again.”

10:34:19 Adams: “I’m in a spin.”

Adams fought to recover, and at 118,000 feet (35,967 meters) came out of the spin, but he was in an inverted 45° dive at Mach 4.7. The X-15’s MH-96 Automatic Flight Control System entered a series of diverging oscillations in the pitch and roll axes,  with accelerations up to 15g. Dynamic pressures on the airframe rapidly increased from 200 pounds per square foot (9.576 kilopascals) to 1,300 pounds per square foot (62.244 kilopascals).

At 62,000 feet (18,898 meters), still at Mach 3.93, the aircraft structure failed and it broke up.

10:34:59 X-15 telemetry failed. Last data indicated it  was oscillating +/- 13 g. Radar altitude was 62,000 feet (18,898 meters). The aircraft was descending at 2,500 feet per second (762 meters per second) and broke into many pieces at this time.

10:35:42 NASA 1: “Chase 4, do you have anything on him?”

10:35:44 Chase 4: “Chase 4, negative.”

10:35:47 NASA 1: “OK, Mike, do you read?”

10:35:52 Chase 4: “Pete, I got dust on the lake down there.”

North American Aviation X-15A-3 56-6672 crashed in a remote area approximately 5½ miles (9 kilometers) north-northeast of Randsburg, California, a small village along U.S. Highway 395.

Major Michael James Adams was killed. This was the only pilot fatality of the entire 199-flight X-15 program.

North American Aviation X-15A 56-6672 on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight. (NASA)
North American Aviation X-15A-3 56-6672 on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

An investigation by NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center determined that, “. . . the root cause of the accident was an electrical disturbance originating from an experiment package using a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) component that had not been properly qualified for the X-15 environment. . .” and that there is “. . . no conclusive evidence to support the hypothesis that SD [spatial disorientation] was a causal factor. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that poor design of the pilot-aircraft interface and ineffective operational procedures prevented the pilot and ground control from recognizing and isolating the numerous failures before the aircraft’s departure from controlled flight was inevitable.”

A Comprehensive Analysis of the X-15 Flight 3-65 Accident, NASA/TM—2014-218538 (Corrected Copy)

Crushed forward fuseleage of X-15 56-6672. (NASA)
Crushed forward fuselage of North American Aviation X-15A-3 56-6672. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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